Walking up and down the rows of Gina's farm, I saw baby turnips left to winter in the fields.
I saw broken carrots turning themselves out through the mud…
…mustard greens, paused in full flourish, and garlic shoots bending in the bitter breeze.
In the woods, under the thick layer of rusty leaves, I found cracked hickory nuts and empty black walnut shells.
I found acorns caps and peeling river birch bark.
Walking down the trail, the greeny underbrush was gone…just gone…and my eyes kept catching the quartz, glowing through the thick gloom, splitting through the damp dirt…
…its snow-colored facets bright as a moonscape.
These are the totems of winter.
Season of the home, season of the hearth? That’s what I was running away from.
It almost done me in…the interior of my urban cabin felt more and more like a trap.
I was lucky to escape. A shutter no more, I was out the house, out the gate, out in the January wilds.
I’d left the house just after sunrise and drove north through the misty dawn…
…watching the spruce trees tower over the scattered homes, breaching through the hanging fog.
I parked my car next to the fence-row of hawthorns.
These woods and this trail were very familiar to me but I’d never seen them like this before.
Where was I?
Here is the path in the very heart of August…all green, all leafed out…bursting with high ferns and long grass and wild grape…groves of flowering walkingstick trees spilling over the trail.
This is the same place now.
Out here in the January wilds, there isn’t much green left and, yet, that’s exactly what I was here to find.
I was on a hunt that would take me far away from my cozy home and light-years away from the world I know.
I was trying to catch one of nature’s most persistent greens, one of the most ancient totems of the wintering world.
I was hunting moss.
YE OLDE MOSS
The moss is considered part of the phylum of soft plants, characterized by their lack of wood and their lack of roots.
It grows in soft mats, in shady and damp environments, usually close to a water source.
Instead of roots, the moss stabilizes itself in place with the use of creeping tissue, smaller than thread, called rhizoids.
It doesn’t bear a fruit and it doesn’t need a seed. Instead, very thin filaments grow from their soft carpets and open up at the top to release its reproductive spores.
Here, it’s easier to see them this way.
These distinct traits are important to note. These characteristics, put in their proper context, help place the moss way, way back in the long, long history of this Spaceship Earth.
Hunting moss turns any citybilly into a paleo-botanist.
This soft plant pre-dates just about everything that surrounds it…older than ginkgo, older than Turtle Island, older than the very first tree, quite possibly older than the dirt itself.
In the history of Spaceship Earth…well, you know what? The moss pre-dates the very notion of history.
Perhaps the better question would be: what’s history?
Because the moss comes from an Earth that would be completely unrecognizable to you and me, completely alien even to the trees themselves.
This was the early Devonian Period.
This was about 470 million years ago. Maybe only 420 million years ago.
The measurement of time that we call a year has very little significance when you’re counting back to the Devonian.
This was over a hundred million years before the first dinosaur. There were no flying creatures, no reptiles, no amphibians, certainly no marsupials, definitely no mammals, barely any scorpions and hardly any insects except for the trilobite.
And, yet, it was an Earth bursting with life.
This was the Age of Fish.
Back then, there was only one home. For both fish and plants, there was only one house…the watery hearth of the global sea.
Now, since I am two-footed, air-breathing land-lubber of a mammal, it’s hard to imagine the world of the first moss.
Even if I could imagine this kind of scene, even if I can picture this water-scape in my mind’s eye, it is almost impossible to think of the Devonian world happening on the same planet as this modern one.
And it’s unfathomable that there are things still out there that belong to both of those worlds.
But that’s moss for you.
It reminds me of the old Native American Zen story, the one where a fish bumps into his friend, another fish.
That fish tells his friend an amazing story…how he saw something floating on the surface of the water…some morsel of food. As he swam towards the food, a giant hand grabbed him and pulled him through to the other side of the water.
The world above the water, the fish said, was bright and dry. He tried his best to describe it all to his friend. He tried to come up with words that could describe the full sky, the warm sunshine, the fresh air, the moving wind, even the very idea of a hand was impossible to convey in words…you wouldn’t believe what’s out there, he said.
And then, just as quickly as he’d been plucked from his world, the giant hand dropped him and he fell through the air and he was back home, back in the water.
Wait, his fish friend said. What’s water?
Back in the Devonian, the world was almost all water. In fact, it was really just one great ocean, called the Panthalassa.
This global ocean housed all manners of sea-creatures and fish...including the very first sharks and sting-rays and, top of the food chain, a species of hungry, armored fish called the placoderms.
Sure, there was some land, in the shape of very large and very unstable tectonic plates, floating around the South Pole, a few million years away from crashing into each other to form the super-continent of Pangaea.
The first life-forms to break the spell of the watery house of the global ocean? The first life-forms to escape the sea and make the land its home?
That’d be moss.
Evolved from single-celled algae, the first moss would’ve looked a lot like this and it would’ve been found a lot like this…
…clamping down to wet rocks on the water’s edge and developing the traits needed to survive in this new home of fresh air and clear sunshine.
Life out of the water? The land as a home?
This was revolutionary, in ways that make all other revolutions seem tame and insignificant.
Because the moss, using photosynthesis, started absorbing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, consequently, the world’s temperature cooled, enticing other life-forms…both plant and animal…to make a similar step out the door of their watery home.
Moss was the game-changer.
As the years rolled on, the world began seeing its first trees, which turned out to be even better habitats for the moss.
It might be the last thing to happen to us too…
…for in the words of the haiku-master Basho…one dream all heroes find to be true…
…cool green moss…
…on forgotten tombs.
LEAVING THE MOSS BEHIND
I walked out of the woods behind Gina’s farm, moss on my mind.
The season of the home, the season of the hearth? Yes, but I didn’t want to go home just yet. I didn’t want to get lured back into that lazy schedule. I didn’t want to get sucked back into the couch.
I had finally broken the spell of winter. I was out and about. The fog had lifted and the day turned out to be bright and cold…just the perfect weather for another hunt.
But what to catch?
The hemlock? The hollies? The yews? The birch?
Driving around the neighborhoods next to Gina’s farm…north Manayunk, Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy…it became obvious what my next quarry should be.
The hunt was on.
I was going to catch the very heart of this season…the very totem that I was trying so hard to avoid.
To be continued…The Season of the Home.